Art Neville - keyboards, vocals; Leo Nocentelli- guitar, vocals; George Porter, Jr - bass, vocals; Zigaboo Modeliste-drums; Guest: Margie Joseph - vocals on 9, 10 &11
The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has become one of the world's greatest cultural celebrations, attracting hundreds of thousands annually, but in 1970 when the festival first began, a few hundred people turned up and the musicians and festival participants outnumbered attendees nearly two to one! Newport Jazz and Folk Festival impresario George Wein was hired to design and produce an event custom tailored for the city of New Orleans and The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit organization, was established to oversee the Festival. Wein's concept of an outdoor music fair with multiple stages featuring a wide variety of indigenous music styles, Louisiana cuisine vendors and crafts booths, plus an evening concert series at Municipal Auditorium, would eventually prove a winning and enduring formula. The 1970 event lasted 5 days and was thrown under the moniker of New Orleans Jazz Fest and Louisiana Heritage Fair with an admission of $3. Headliners at the evening concerts included Duke Ellington, Al Hirt, Fats Domino, the Dukes of Dixieland, Germaine Bazzle, James Rivers and Sweet Emma Barrett. Outside four sound stages were erected featuring the best jazz, soul, Cajun, blues, brass band and gospel music and several tribes of Mardi Gras Indians appeared in full regalia for the first time ever on nontraditional parading days. For the outdoor events, reserved seating was nonexistent so listeners, both blacks and whites, simply stood around the stage enjoying the music together. This at a time when the American South was still emerging from nearly a century of segregation, and events attended by both races were still a novelty.
On Saturday afternoon April 25, 1970, adjacent to the Municipal Auditorium, in an outdoor area of what was then Beauregard Square (now called Congo Square); some of the greatest local talent presented a program called "Soul Saturday." The concept was not unlike a live outdoor "Soul Train" or American Bandstand type event, with listeners unabashedly dancing in the square. This was especially true for local hotshots The Meters who, in terms of sheer rhythmic force, had no equal. The history of this native New Orleans band dates back to three years prior, when keyboardist Art Neville recruited bassist George Porter Jr., drummer Joseph 'Zigaboo' Modeliste and guitarist Leo Nocentelli to form the quartet who many now consider the founding fathers of funk. The Meters would also became the house band for Allen Toussaint and his record label, Sansu Enterprises, where their trademark blend of funk, blues and dance grooves, fueled with a New Orleans vibe, graced countless recordings by other regional artists as well as their own albums and singles. At the time of this 1970 festival appearance, The Meters were just wrapping up their third and last album for the Josie label and would soon sign with Reprise.
In addition to several choice covers, this performance places an emphasis on singles culled from the The Meters self-titled debut, released the previous year, as well as both 1970 albums Look-ka Py Py and Struttin. Following a rousing introduction and a minute or so of tuning up, The Meters immediately kick into high gear with their signature instrumentals "Cissy Strut" and a revved up "Here Comes The Meter Man" back to back. Even at this young stage, these musicians are masters of New Orleans meter, with drummer Zigaboo Modeliste conveying deep mastery of second-line rhythms. Leo Nocentelli's guitar and Art Neville's keyboards play both melody and rhythm, often working in tandem, not unlike Steve Cropper and Booker T. Jones of Booker T & The MGs fame, one of The Meters most overt influences. This combined with the underlying funkiness of Modeliste and Porter is what gives The Meters their distinctive sound.
The Meters next slow things down a bit and pay tribute to Curtis Mayfield by covering The Impressions hit "I'm So Proud," with Art Neville providing a soulful lead vocal fueled with style and grace. The deep grooves of title track from the band's second album, Look-ka Py Py follows. This is a fine example of Art Neville's versatility on the Hammond B-3 organ, where he vacillates between a key-paddling rhythmic style to unhinged leads. It also features a highly entertaining a cappella section, where the band continues instrument free, using only their voices to maintain the groove. No soul party would be complete without a cover of Sam & Dave's classic "Soul Man" which also gets The Meters treatment, which then segues directly into their new single at the time "Chicken Strut," a funky James Brown-style workout that elicits exclamations and screams from band members and dancers alike to close the set.
However, the performance isn't over and following the MC's call for a hand for The Meters, he brings the Meters back and introduces Soul Sister One & A Half, Margie Joseph to the stage. Frequently compared to Aretha Franklin, Joseph never gained the fame or critical success lavished upon the Queen of Soul, but she deservedly has become a soul cult favorite through a series of albums and singles for the Stax subsidiary Volt Records and later for Atlantic. Joseph first recorded demos in 1967 at the famed Muscle Shoals Studios for the ill-fated Okeh label. A year prior to this festival, Joseph signed with the Stax subsidiary Volt, releasing the underground favorite "One More Chance," which would be followed by "Your Sweet Loving," a minor R&B chart hit later in the year. At the time of this remarkable performance, her fine debut LP, Margie Joseph Makes a New Impression was just beginning to make waves and she is in superb form. With The Meters serving as her band, Joseph begins with an utterly unique arrangement of John Hartford's "Gentle On My Mind," which had won two Grammies in 1968 and was still quite popular from Glen Campbell's monster crossover hit. A more soulful version of this song one would be hard-pressed to find, with Joseph giving it her all. A single released on Volt the previous year, "Never Can You Be," is up next veering into blues territory. The Meters are equally adept here, with Nocentelli interjecting sizzling lead guitar between Joseph's passionate and powerful vocal lines. The set closes with the smoldering upcoming single at the time, "Your Sweet Loving," which would gain more notoriety decades later when it would be sampled in "None of Your Business" by Salt-N-Pepa. It's a tour-de-force closer that wraps up this memorable performance in fine style.
Throughout their time on stage, both with and without Margie Joseph, The Meters are superb and convey the youthful energy that made their early records so exciting for listeners more geared toward rock and soul. The Meters have come to define another root sound of New Orleans, strongly influencing their peers and subsequent generations of bands like Little Feat, The Radiators and of course Art's project with his siblings The Neville Brothers. The Meters music continues to influence countless musicians the world over, but what is most intriguing about this vintage 1970 performance is how such an incredibly tight band can still manage to sound so free and loose. (Bershaw)